Season 1
From the Travel Journal: Love In The Time of Corona: Human to Human Transmission

If you want to stay connected, it’s all about the cables.

INTRODUCTION

This week we go deep (like inverted Mt. Everest underwater, deep) to explore the vast, incredible network of underwater cables that are keeping us connected with each other as we Zoom, Houseparty, Skype, and TikTok our way through lockdown. If humanity is an organism, these lines are the arteries and veins that keep us running.  And what we found when we dug in was a story way wilder and more dangerous than we ever could’ve imagined: international espionage and spy games, saboteurs (human and shark) determined to cut the ties that bind, and a new race by the largest companies in the world to build their own networks and bring us all one step closer to living in Googlestan, Amazonia, and Faceburgh (TM, Frequency Machine 2020).

This week’s episode of Passport is all about life on lockdown around the world and all the ways that love is still finding a way to shine through it all. We covered the last Zoom wedding in New York City before it went dark, a brand new love at first Skype story blossoming as we speak, a choir that organized a performance to show some love to a 99-year-old veteran, who in turn has raised $3.2 million pounds of love for the National Health Service in the UK. To quote one of my favorite love/love to hate movies of all time — “If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love, actually, is all around.”  Cheesy, yes — but you know what? These times call for some big, stringy Velveeta right about now (and lucky you, it’s the last cheese left on the shelves!).

As we dug into each of these amazing, unique stories — we found one theme throughout: humans NEED to connect. We are social creatures — connection is baked into our DNA.  And so no matter what curveballs this pandemic throws, people all around the world are finding ways to make those connections. And for most of us that has meant finding ways to virtually connect. Yes, yes, #allthezooms and Zoom fatigue, someone accidentally Houseparty’d you while you were pantless, and your boss can’t figure out how to turn off her potato filter.   

And yet — thank the heavens [aka “The Cloud ” for our Gen Z readers] for it. What would we be doing without these digital lifelines out into our world, our families, our workplaces, our book-drinking clubs? However, it turns out The Cloud has very little to do with it.

It’s all about the cables.

PART I — WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?

“What Hath God Wrought?

Those were the words Samuel Morse sent almost 156 years ago to the day, on May 24, 1844, in the very first long-distance telegraph sent in the US. The message traveled 42 miles almost instantaneously between Baltimore and Washington, DC and signaled a new era for humanity — something Morse clearly understood. An era in which instantaneous communication was not only possible, but soon expected and even mundane. As telegraph lines began popping up all over the world, people began to think about what this new kind of quick communication and connection could mean for humanity. And actually, just as today, a lot of it wasn’t positive. In 1858, The New York Times called the telegraph “superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth,” which might as well be the unofficial slogan of Twitter.

For all of human history, messages never moved faster than ships, horses, pigeons, or Greek runners in Marathon could carry them. And then, in an instant: they were instant. And the thing that made it all possible were actual, physical lines of cable. You could send a message anywhere, as long as you could string a cable from point A to point B. Now, that was fine for city to city communication. But sending a message from the US to the UK still took 10 days — the time it took a ship to sail across the Atlantic. And so no sooner had Morse sent his pretty intense message than the race to connect continents began. But it was a daunting proposition.

Enter Cyrus Field.

He was a self-made millionaire from the paper industry. He had no knowledge of cables or the deep-sea. But he was a “Field” of Dreams — so he built it. He formed the Atlantic Telegraph Company and they started laying cables — for years. It was hard, dangerous, expensive work that had never been done before. But Field persevered and in August of 1858, the cable from the UK and the cable from the US met somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic and were spliced together. North America and the UK were officially connected. Queen Victoria sent the first transatlantic telegraph to US President James Buchanan – 

“New cable, who dis?”

It’s been 162 years since Field of Dream’s dream was realized. And, shockingly, almost nothing has changed. For all the talk of WiFi and satellites and how 5G is definitely creating new viruses — most of the world’s internet traffic still happens via cables no bigger than the width of a magic marker or a roll of toilet paper (remember those?) stretching across vast oceans. It’s still expensive, dangerous work. First, a route has to be plotted, with care taken to avoid coral reefs, sunken ships, fish habitats, and other obstructions. Then a giant ship coils giant amounts of cable on board and takes to sea, lowering the cable down to the bottom of the ocean floor at a snail’s pace. Eventually the ship will meet up in the middle with a ship from the other side (if it’s a long cable), and splice each side together.

The ocean is lined with these fiber-optic cables as this fascinating map shows.  These lines are the ties that bind us together; the most valuable garden hoses on Earth. With so much valuable data passing through them every millisecond, protecting these lines is a big deal. From what, you might ask?

#1: SHARKS.

For some reason, sharks seem drawn to biting these cables. Nobody is sure why — electromagnetic pulses (which sharks can sense)? Curiosity? But people who work on cable repairs have found shark teeth embedded in cables all over the world. Cool cool. Just don’t bite my cable until I’m finished watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire for the 10th time, kthanks!

 

#2 SPIES.

Billions of secrets and trillions in financial transactions pass through these tiny tubes at the bottom of the ocean. For years, the US military has tracked Russian subs hanging out near some of our most vital (and vulnerable) Pacific cables. Have they already tapped them? Take this Facebook personality quiz to find out if they even needed to in the first place. But the Russians aren’t the only ones in the game. The US has been at it from the start. During the height of the Cold War, the US needed to find out more about Soviet submarine technology; specifically their first-strike nuclear capabilities.

In 1971, they discovered a communications cable deep in Soviet waters in the Sea of Okhotsk which connected a major Soviet Naval base to their Pacific Fleet headquarters. The Soviets had installed listening devices throughout the perimeter of the cable, and were completely convinced that no US submarine could penetrate that deep into their waters — so convinced, in fact, that they weren’t encrypting their messages on the cable.

But the U.S.S. Halibut did break through. It was known as Operation Ivy Bells. The Halibut got past Soviet detection and deep into the Sea of Okhotsk. They found the cable and attached a 20-foot surveillance device that coiled around it. Then the Halibut snuck out again, undetected. Every month, the US had to sneak back in and send divers down to remove the surveillance tapes and replace fresh ones. For years, the US was able to collect all the communication passing through that cable. That is, until a disgruntled NSA employee named Ronald Pelton walked into the Russian Embassy in 1980 and began selling US secrets to the Soviets. He sold Operation Ivy Bells to the Russians for $5,000. After his betrayal, when the divers went back to get the tapes, the device and the tapes were gone. You can see the device today in the Great Patriotic War museum in Moscow. Pelton wouldn’t be the last disgruntled NSA worker to compromise cable espionage.

As the internet became ‘a thing’ and the number of fiber-optic cables began to explode, the US laid a lot of those first cables (thanks, Al Gore!) and so made sure that most of them just happened to pass through our waters, giving our Navy and Intelligence agencies easy access to tapping them. The true depth and breadth of our surveillance became known when Edward Snowden released a trove of classified documents and the world realized the US had been intercepting anything it wanted through those cables for decades.

#3: SABOTAGE

Every year, some cables are damaged and cut on purpose. Sometimes the goal is disruption of service, as when three scuba divers severed a major cable in the Mediterranean, cutting Egypt’s internet access by 60% in one slice. Other times it’s harvesting the cables for money. And sometimes, it’s a trawling fishing boat. The truth is, all it takes is a set of scuba gear, a map, and wire cutters to keep an entire country from finding out if Carol Baskin really killed her husband.

PART III — WHAT HATH THE INTERNET WROUGHT?

As the world becomes more and more dependent on these fiber-optic cables to stay connected, do business, and really do anything — some of the world’s biggest companies have begun bypassing the usual fiber-optic lines laid by countries and laying their own cables. Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and Google all have cables now — with more planned. China’s biggest companies are laying their own as well.

What will a world look like where the cable lines are owned by companies instead of nations or alliances? Better? Worse? The race to own the underwater cables is underway — so we’re about to find out.

These cables are the shipping lanes of the 21st century. And whoever owns them will own, to a degree, the world.  

These lines are the veins and arteries that connect us all. They connect us to our families. They allow us to move money, goods, and data around the world in milliseconds. They allow us to work remotely during a pandemic, slowing the spread of a deadly disease until better treatments or a cure can be found. They allow a family all over the world to participate in a socially distanced wedding. They allow a doctor in Italy on the backside of the curve to give invaluable advice to a colleague in NYC about to face the mountain. They are, quite literally, our life lines these days.  

If humanity’s special sauce, evolutionarily, is our ability to pass on collective information and knowledge and wisdom through communication, then these cables are the physical evidence of our profound evolution.

Every second of everyday, the stuff of life passes through them. A new baby announcement. A video of a child’s first steps. A streamed graduation ceremony. News of an engagement. A life gone. A potato filter. It’s all in there.

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© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.
© 2018, Frequency Machine Studios.